Are Children Learning

Indianapolis private schools score high but most saw ISTEP drops

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Hasten Hebrew Academy in Washington Township was the highest scoring private school in Indianapolis and also had one of the biggest gains over last year.

While many Indianapolis private schools were among the state’s very highest scoring on this year’s ISTEP test, a surprisingly high number of them saw lower scores than in 2013.

Statewide, about 43 percent of about 300 private schools did worse this year than last year. In Indianapolis, it was a majority of private schools — 55 percent — that lost ground from the prior year. (Find your school’s ISTEP scores here. Or see a sortable list of Indianapolis private school scores at the bottom of this story.)

There some factors to consider in those results.

ISTEP is only given in grades 3 to 8, so private high schools, some of which tend to be high-performing, are not included. Also, not all private schools with elementary grades take the state test. It is not required for private schools. And many of the schools that lost ground from the prior year were only down slightly from where they were.

That appeared to be the case for several Indianapolis Catholic schools that dropped less than two percentage points from the prior year but still saw more than 90 percent of kids pass.

Helping fuel strong Catholic school results each year is consistency, said Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Archdiocese.

“Students who attend Catholic schools are well prepared and do well on the test,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with what we get with kids who come to our schools. We get them early and they tend to stay. When we can get kids in early grades and keep them, we do a very good job of teaching them the basic building blocks to be good students through their entire lives.”

In Marion County about one-third of private schools rank in the top quarter for percent passing both English and math on ISTEP among more than 1,800 schools who took the exam statewide. That percentage is four times higher than the percentage of schools ranked in the state’s top quarter for all eight Marion County townships combined (8 percent) and almost eight times more than Indianapolis Public Schools (5 percent) and all of the county’s charter schools combined (4 percent).

Five of the state’s top 10 schools for percent passing ISTEP were private schools, including Indianapolis’ Hasten Hebrew Academy, ranked eighth with 98.2 percent passing.

Principal Miriam Gettinger said Hasten made a concerted effort to reach for very high scores this year that paid off.

The school has had a long run of very high passing rates in the range of 90 to 95 percent passing, but last year slipped to a still very high 89.3 percent.

Gettinger said the staff went to work figuring out what their students needed help with.

“After last year we did some very careful data analysis of our school and their scores,” she said.

The school does not have access to diagnostic tests that public schools use to prepare for the state test, Gettinger said, so teachers created their own mini-tests with ISTEP-like questions focused on areas they identified as weaknesses for their students.

One example was math problem-solving. Teachers wrote ISTEP-style questions that students took each week to check on how well they were learning the concepts from class and figuring out how to apply them for the state exam.

In writing, students got more practice in ISTEP-like essay questions, writing narrative or persuasive essays each week.

At the same time, Hasten is solidifying a curriculum change it made about five years ago, with a heavier focus on critical thinking skills and writing in all subjects, even art, music and physical education.

“At the end of gym, they’ll write a reflection on the activity or a social scenario, like competition,” Gettinger said.

The curriculum changes, she said, made Hasten a stronger school.

“We absolutely will not teach to a test,” Gettinger said.

In Marion County, eight of the top 10 ranked schools for ISTEP passing rate are private schools, along with two IPS schools: Sidener Academy, a magnet school for gifted students which ranked No. 1 statewide at 100 percent passing, and School 84, a Center for Inquiry magnet school, which ranked 20th statewide with 96.3 percent passing.

Most of the county’s top 10 are Catholic schools, led by Immaculate Heart of Mary School on Indianapolis’ north side at 94.7 percent passing.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Immaculate Heart of Mary School had the highest ISTEP passing rate of any Catholic school in Indianapolis

A factor that might be helping Catholic school performance is a tradition of strong parental involvement. That might be partly driven by the desire to get the most out of the tuition parents pay, said Otolski, but it’s also because of an openness to parents in the school and an emphasis on involving them in student learning.

“If you’re paying $4,000 or $5,000 a year to send your kid to a grade school, I suppose you might be more motivated to pay attention to what your kids are doing,” he said. “But every parent wants their child to succeed. Catholic schools are really open to inviting parents to take part inside the classroom. Expectations are set early on that there will be a lot of work and parents are going to have to be involved to guide children to learn good study habits.”

The top scoring township school — Lawrence Township’s Amy Beverland Elementary School — ranked 14th best in the county and 186th statewide at 90.2 percent passing.

In other states, few private schools participate in the state testing program, but most in Indiana do. Private schools in Marion County have long been among the highest scorers on ISTEP. Enrollment at many private schools, especially Catholic schools, is growing thanks to Indiana’s fast-growing voucher program, which allows low- and middle-income families to use tax dollars to pay a portion of private school tuition bills for their children.

Critics say a big reason private schools do better on ISTEP is because they can be selective, picking which students to enroll and expelling those who fail to behave or achieve academically. Several of the county’s private schools use vouchers to serve significantly poorer students, who tend to have more problems in school. But some of those schools still scored well on ISTEP.

Otolski said it might be true that some Catholic schools have demographic advantages that help them perform well on ISTEP. But that’s not always the case.

“We’ve got kids all across the economic spectrum,” he said. “We have plenty of schools that are toward the core of the city that have just as much of the same kinds of difficulties as public schools.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.